by Fred Pearce
Emissions from burning fossil fuel are the major contributing
factor to climate change.
Polar regions are expected to suffer the most from climate
change. Melting ice sheets will have an irreversible impact
on sea levels.
scientists in a recent UN report have warned that global warming
could have catastrophic and irreversible consequences on the
world's environment. Organizations such as the Red Cross and
Red Crescent are aiming to help people learn to adapt to the
changes to come.
Lidia Rosa Paz was at a loss. She pointed despairingly out
into the raging waters of the River Choluteca. To the spot
where, until days before, she had lived in the colonia of
Pedro Dias. The colonia, on the edge of Choluteca town in
Honduras, had been washed away on the night of 28 October
1998, taking more than a hundred people to their deaths. It
was one story on a night when 10,000 Hondurans died and more
than 2 million were left dependent on aid from the Red Cross
and Red Crescent and others.
The colonia had a fully functioning evacu-ation system, Lidia
said. And the radio had broadcast hurricane warnings on the
night that Hurricane Mitch came visiting. But nobody in Pedro
Dias had believed the flood warnings. "Hurricanes never
come here," she said to me. Or at least they never did.
For tens of millions of people across the world, Lidia's
story should be prophetic. Nobody in Honduras, nobody in the
Caribbean, had seen anything like Mitch. Not so much for the
ferocity of its winds as the amount of water it dumped on
this Central American country, creating huge floods and unleashing
And many meteorologists believe the most deadly Atlantic
hurricane in 200 years was a consequence of global warming
- a lethal confluence of unprecedented hurricane activity
and warmer sea waters that encourage more water to evaporate.
Many more are convinced that, whatever its specific cause,
Mitch was a sign of things to come. For the vulnerable inhabitants
of flood-prone river valleys and coastal zones. For those
living on hillsides at risk from landslips. For millions more
who do not yet know that they are vulnerable in a new era
And, of course, for the agencies that will rush to their
aid after a disaster.
Such fears were encouraged when, a year later, more record
rains brought floods and landslides to the coast of northern
Venezuela. Another disaster; another estimated 30,000 dead.
"No one could have foreseen what happened here,"
Jose Rafael Gomez Pinto of the Venezuela Red Cross said later.
"This was a vacation area where people came to spend
the weekend. Even
millionaires had houses here."
And the sense that weird weather is now the norm came again
a few months later, in February 2000, when storms in the Indian
Ocean took their turn, flooding vast swathes of Mozambique.
Searching the records afterwards, South African climatologist
Mark Jury found that maximum daily rainfall across the region
in the 1990s was 50 per cent higher than it had been early
in the 20th century. Warmer ocean waters created more evaporation,
so cyclones carried more moisture, he said.
Temperatures above or below average from 1850 to present.
||Decreasing crop yields
||Greater disease risk
||Main fisheries affected
||Increase severity/frequency of
A report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC), agreed in January this year that
recent years have seen a clear increase in "heavy and
extreme precipitation events". And it warns of more to
come as global warming gathers pace.
It won't just be storms and floods, either. Martin Parry of
the University of East Anglia in England, a leading IPCC climatologist,
forecast last November: "Dry areas will get drier and
wet areas wetter." And a new study from his colleague
Mike Hulme predicts that a swathe of already arid central
and western Asia countries, from Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan,
will see less rain and a much steeper than average increase
in temperatures in the coming decades. The road to Samarkand,
already hot and dusty, ain't seen nothing yet.
And as fast as the models are completed, their predictions
seem to be coming true. Right on cue, as Hulme published his
findings last autumn, drought began to engulf central Asia,
where a deadly combination of no rains and intermittent civil
war caused particular suffering in Afghanistan.
The tragedy, according to Hulme's analysis, is that poor
nations, often dislocated by war and the collapse of government,
are easily the most vulnerable to climate change. By plotting
national wealth against predicted
temperature increases, he concludes that the three most vulnerable
countries to climate change in the 21st century will be Afghanistan,
Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. None have been strangers to disaster
during the closing decades of the 20th century. And disaster
will beget disaster.
The UN predicts that the effects of climate change will fall
disproportionately on the poor who have less capacity to cope
with more severe and frequent weather events.
Coastal erosion, loss of land and property and dislocation
of people are just some of the effects climate change will
have on small island states.
The hand of man
The fact that our world is warming and its weather becoming
more extreme is now almost universally accepted among scientists.
Accepted, too, is the fact that the hand of man can be seen
in at least some of the climatic change. The accumulation
in the atmosphere of polluting gases, especially carbon dioxide
from burning fossil fuels, is trapping solar energy at particular
wavelengths close to the Earth's surface. This "greenhouse
effect" has been known to physicists for more than a
century, and last year it was measured directly for the first
time in the changing spectrum of radiation escaping from the
atmosphere into space.
Man is not the only player, of course. Most scientists now
accept that some of the warming since the end of a cold spell
in the mid-19th century can be attributed to solar cycles.
But equally there is consensus that the faster rate of warming
since around 1970 has no extra-terrestrial explanation. If
anything, solar cycles should have been cooling the planet
during that time. The most recent IPCC assessment, chaired
by the former head of the British Meteorological Office Sir
John Houghton, concluded that: "Most of the observed
warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due
to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."
How fast the warming continues will depend on how quickly
the world can bring emissions of greenhouse gases under control.
Because carbon dioxide in particular stays in the air for
at least a century, we will have to reduce emissions of the
gas by more than half just to stabilize temperatures at existing
levels, says the IPCC. Unless we do something drastic soon,
the IPCC predicts a likely warming of up to 6 degrees Celsius
in the coming century - ten times more than in the last hundred
years. It warns that under that sort of warming influence,
weather systems, which are largely driven by heat in the atmosphere,
could change in many unpredictable ways.
In particular the hydrological cycle will become more intense,
increasing evaporation rates. This will have two effects.
Firstly, it will increase rainfall and the intensity of storms
in coastal regions. But secondly it will cause the interiors
of continents to dry out as moisture is sucked from soils,
causing drought and desertification.
Effects on lives and livelihoods
In a second report on likely impacts of climate change, agreed
in February, the IPCC concluded that the world could expect
"a general reduction in crop yields in most tropical
and subtropical regions...decreased water availability in
many water-scarce regions, particularly in the subtropics...an
increase in the number of people exposed to vector-borne disease
such as malaria and water-borne diseases such as cholera...
a widespread increase in the risk of flooding from both increased
heavy precipitation events and sea-level rise."
Its more specific forecasts included: more monsoon floods
in south-east Asia and more drought in central Asia, around
the Mediterranean and in southern Africa and Australia. Parts
of Africa and Asia face more drought years as well as more
flood years as natural inter-annual variability in the weather,
caused by phenomena such as El Niño, become more intense
and extreme. Malaria and dengue fever will spread from the
tropical lowlands, threatening highland and subtropical regions.
Often their progress will be encouraged by the disruption
caused by climatic disasters. Two years after Mitch, dengue
fever was reaching epidemic proportions in Tegucigalpa, the
Many expect hydrological changes to be the dominant impact
of climate change - far more significant for most people than
the warming itself. With water already a critical resource
in many countries, vulnerability to drought is growing in
much of the world.
The risk of flooding will increase considerably in Europe
with serious repercussions for urban areas, industry, tourism,
agriculture and natural habitats.
"Climate change is here and it is bound
to get worse."
The big picture on CO2
Carbon dioxide (CO2) accounted for over 80 per cent of global
warming pollution in 1990, 97 per cent of the CO2 emitted
by western industrialized countries came from burning coal,
oil and gas for energy. Around 25 per cent of the world's
population living in industrialized nations consume almost
80 per cent of the world's energy. It's a leading reason why
developing nations look to the industrialized world to take
the first decisive steps in cutting CO2. There's now over
30 per cent more CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere than before
the Industrial Revolution. (An increase from 280 to around
370 parts per million by volume (ppmv) today.)
Source: World Wide Fund for Nature
The IPCC reckons that the number of people living in countries
that meet its definition of being water-stressed will triple
to 5 billion by the year 2025.
But the report finds that "the most widespread direct
risk to human settlements from climate change is flooding
and landslides, driven by projected increases in rainfall
intensity and, in coastal areas, sea-level rise." Many
people know that, with sea levels likely to rise by half a
metre in the coming century, heavily populated areas of low-lying
land, such as southern Bangladesh, the Nile delta, parts of
eastern China and many atoll islands of the South Pacific
and Indian Oceans face a bleak future. So too do the long
stretches of low-lying coasts in western Africa from Senegal
to Angola, in South America from Venezuela to Recife in Brazil,
almost the entire eastern US seaboard and much of the coastlines
of Indonesia and Pakistan.
Coastal regions are already home to half of the world's population,
and have populations growing at twice the global average.
Almost by the hour, the world is putting itself at greater
risk from the rising tides.
Many millions will simply be flooded from their homes. But
many more will hang on until an inevitable high tide or storm
surge invades. The average annual number of people whose houses
are flooded by storm surges along coastlines is expected to
increase from a few million each year to between 75 and 200
million by the year 2080, estimates the IPCC.
Such a scale of flooding will damage national economies.
"Potential damages to infrastructure in coastal areas
from sea-level rise have been projected to be tens of billions
of dollars for individual countries, for example Egypt, Poland
and Viet Nam," says the IPCC study.
And the report warns that inland areas could suffer, too.
They include river valleys subjected to more intense rainfall
or stronger spring meltwaters, as well as many low-lying urban
areas, especially squatter settlements and shanty towns with
poor drainage. "Urban flooding could be a problem anywhere
that storm drains, water supply and waste management systems
have inadequate capacity. In such areas, squatter settlements...are
The IPCC carries an especially stark warning for aid and
emergency services when it warns that insurance companies
will increasingly withdraw from providing cover in high-risk
areas. Both governments and aid agencies will be called on
to fill the gap.
The message of these latest IPCC reports is clear, says Madeleen
Helmer, a consultant on climate change with the Netherlands
Red Cross. "Climate change is already here, and it is
bound to get worse, however much is done internationally to
try and halt it." While fighting it, the world has no
choice but to also find ways of living with it.
"Up until now, adaptation has been a dirty word among
both researchers and negotiators. To accept the need for adaptation
has been seen as somehow condoning climate change," says
Helmer. This, she believes, has happened partly because the
agenda of climate change "has often been driven by environmental
groups, whose number-one objective is to reduce emissions
of greenhouse gases".
Non-governmental organizations specializing in development
issues, with their more pragmatic agendas, "have not
so far become involved". This even though developing
countries such as Bangladesh and the small island states of
the Pacific and Caribbean have been asking for more attention
to be given to the issue of adaptation, she says. But until
recently their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. "Very
little has been done. But things are changing."
One sign of change occurred at the climate negotiations held
in The Hague last November. Though mostly remembered for their
failure to reach an agreement on the Kyoto Protocol to limit
emissions of greenhouse gases, the talks did have a positive
side, says Helmer. For the first time there was concrete discussion
about setting up an adaptation fund to help countries cope
with the impacts of climate change. One suggestion was that
the fund would need 1 billion US dollars a year to start its
Helmer is currently working on plans to establish a centre
inside the Movement to focus on how climate change will impact
on real communities, particularly through the expected greater
number of natural disasters. It will also look at how National
Societies need to adapt in order to cope. If all goes well,
the centre could be at work in The Hague by early 2002.
"We want the centre to become a link between climate
science and our own investigations into vulnerability to climate
disasters and adaptation," she says. The IPCC scientists
know about how the natural world will respond to changing
climate, but much less about how this will translate into
the experiences of real people. The Red Cross has the experience
both on the ground and in framing disaster mitigation strategies,
that can help to fill that gap. "We can deliver the human
factor," says Helmer.
Many within the Red Cross and Red Crescent family still wonder
whether the sometimes abstruse world of climate change is
really relevant to their work. After all, they already deal
with the human tragedies caused by climatic disasters. In
1999, nearly three-quarters of the losses attributed to natural
disasters arose from storms, floods and drought. And some
fear that switching priorities to cope with theoretical climatic
disasters in the future could prevent them from concentrating
on real disasters today. Why plan for climate change in sub-Saharan
Africa when crises such as AIDS impinge on so many lives today?
Helmer believes that, while global climate change may appear
gradual when climatologists talk of rises in average temperatures
over many decades, the change will often manifest itself in
sudden climatic shifts and extreme weather events, which do
cause real day-to-day disasters. We won't know for sure which
climatic disasters should be laid at the door of global warming,
but the reality will be that many would not otherwise have
happened. "The speed and impact of climatic disasters
will increase. I don't think that we can say that it will
be business as usual. If we do we will not be able to cope."
The world has warmed by 0.5°C
over the past century and an average 2°C warming is predicted
30 new infectious diseases have emerged in the past 20 years.
Scientific consensus agrees that air pollution from human
activities is partly responsible for global warming.
Global warming will expose millions of people to new health
Global sea level has risen between 10 and 25 centimetres
in the last 100 years and will rise faster still in the coming
By the year 2050, up to 1 million additional deaths from
malaria may be occurring annually as a result of climate change.
Source: World Wide Fund for Nature
Riccardo Conti, the ICRC's specialist on complex emergencies,
has worked extensively in Iraq over the past decade fixing
water supply equipment to keep down the incidence of waterborne
disease and hunger. Much of the equipment fell into disrepair
quite soon after the Gulf war for want of spare parts. But
that's not the whole story. Often water intake equipment needs
rebuilding because water levels in the rivers are low. "Water
treatment plants on the River Tigris have been sucking mud
because drought has reduced the water levels," he says.
And that looks like a result of climate change. "When
you see the pattern of the last three or four years, you realize
something is happening," he says.
"In the field, people are seeing climate change daily
in the availability of water for drinking and for their fields,"
says Conti. "For us in the water sector, climate change
is important. If we don't start to think about it now, then
Many governments, including those in the developing world,
are devising strategies for coping with climate change - whether
it is drawing up evacuation plans for low-lying Pacific islands
or planning for the next Hurricane Mitch. "The Red Cross
and Red Crescent has not so far become involved in these policy
developments within governments," says Helmer. "But
we should be trying to link up." Helping National Societies
do that will, she hopes, be a major task for the new centre.
Climate change will not in most cases alter radically the
kind of climatic disasters that vulnerable communities face.
But it will often change the frequency and intensity of those
events. Hurricanes are not new to the Caribbean, for instance,
but one with the sheer volume of rainfall that Mitch dumped
on Honduras was. If Lidia Rosa Paz and her neighbours in Choluteca
had been more aware that climate change meant their city was
no longer immune from hurricanes, they would have heeded the
radio alert and many would have survived as the river burst
through their colonia.
As climate change pushes the world towards more extreme weather,
more and more people will be exposed to not one, but a recurrence
of major disasters during their lives. "There is a risk
of more and more people being marginalized through persistent
disasters," says Eva von Oelreich from the Federation's
disaster preparedness and response department.
Perhaps the Movement's most vital task, she says, is to take
hold of the mass of scientific projections now emerging -
often with quite detailed predictions of how local climate
will change - and work out what it all means at the local
level, for real communities. "We can work out the risks
and help them to manage that risk. Awareness is the poor person's
Fred Pearce is environment consultant at New Scientist magazine.
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